Reviewed by James Puckett
I was excited when Taschen announced the first volume of Type: A Visual History of Typefaces and Graphic Styles, described as “This exuberant selection of typographic fonts and styles traces the modern evolution of the printed letter”*. Such language, including the title, is disingenuous, because this book is not a history.
Type does contain a short essay by coauthor/coeditor Cees W. de Jong about type history, but it is poorly written and riddled with inaccuracies. Similarly bad are the captions that introduce each specimen. Many are obvious or inane statements such as “It was an honor to have one’s name set on such a lovely publication.” (p. 88), “This printer from Amsterdam evidently had a lot of customers in the countryside.” (p. 100) and “Back in time! Two lines, two different typefaces in a fantasy world.” (p. 243). Overall the writing feels like a draft rushed to press; it should have been fact checked and edited by a historian.
If Type is not a history, then what is it? Type is a photographic odyssey through type specimens collected by the late Jan Tholenaar, a Dutch bibliophile who adored ornamental metal type. This volume, the first of two, covers the period 1628 – 1900. About two-thirds of the content is from the nineteenth century, with a heavy focus on the artistic printing movement. Most of the pages shown are cherry-picked for their ornamental letters and borders. For example, the photos of the very rare 1794 Fry and Steele specimen focus not on Isaac Moore’s classic interpretation Baskerville’s types, but on the fleurons.
You will not find many important text faces of 1600 – 1900 in Type. Baskerville’s work does not appear, Bodoni is only seen in Greek, and the didones shown are knockoffs. The walbaum, scotch, and scotch modern genres are ignored. As one might expect from a collection of metal specimens, wood type does not appear. Unadorned sans types appear when they are on a specimen page with ornamented types, but no effort is made to showcase them. While ornamental designs are certainly worth exploring, they are hardly the only type of the period. I know from firsthand experience that some of these specimens include a far wider variety of type then what is seen in this so-called history.
As a companion to Type, 1,000 images of type specimens can be downloaded for unrestricted use from Taschen.com using a key card. They are of excellent quality and high-resolution versions can exceed 300 DPI at real size. For some specimens the pages found online go beyond the ornamental focus of Type. These images alone are worth many times the cost of the book; if you download two of them you have broken even on the cost of paying a library for a high-quality book scan.
As an object, Type is a winner. There is only one bad reproduction in the book and every other image looks great. Luscious paper lends gravitas to even the most ridiculous artistic printing specimens. Layouts are thoughtful, considerate of content, and never become monotonous. Now and then a specimen is stripped down to just the letters and printed in gold, a treatment type does not get often enough. If the typesetters had used f ligatures this design would be exquisite.
That a respected publisher would represent a niche collection as a survey of typographic history is disturbing. Future editions should be titled Ornamental Type: Specimens in the Collection of Jan Tholenaar, Volume 1. It needs to be proofread and edited by an expert. That said, I do not know of a better tour of ornamented type specimens, and I doubt there will be one. If you like ornament, buy Type, but let those responsible know that they owe history better.
* Type: A Visual History of Typefaces and Graphic Styles
Written and edited by Cees W. de Jong, Alston W. Purvis, and Jan Tholenaar
Published by Taschen, ISBN 978-3836511018
Design: Sense/Net, Andy Disl & Birgit Eichwede.
James Puckett left a career in IT to study at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, DC, where he graduated with honors. While at the Corcoran he developed a passion for typography that resulted in a thesis on versatility in type design. The interest in type design sparked by his thesis led James to pursue commercial type design after graduation. James now resides in Manhattan where he designs type for release through his foundry, Dunwich Type Founders.